Creating the magic in many of your favorite classic rock and soul songs are backup singers. Often anonymous, these singers support the mood and feel of the song.
More than just the “ooo,” “aaaah,” and “yeah’s,” backup singers add a unique layer to a solo artist. In many cases, these singers are talented artists in their own right and make a living singing, if just out of the spotlight.
You’ve likely heard of the singers on our list but might be surprised to learn they began as backup vocalists. We’re about to warm up and start the show.
Let’s hit it!
About Backup Singers
Backup singers have essential jobs in the music industry. When a band or artist needs a little harmony or soul, these singers come in and do the job. Usually not band members, backup singers provide something extra that elevates the vocal lines.
They’re known as background vocalists, additional vocals, background singers, and additional vocals. But whatever you call them, they play a vital role in your favorite music.
In some bands, the other musicians support the singer by singing or shouting backup vocals. For some styles, that works. But for country, rock, blues, and soul, it pays to have backing vocalists who can wail.
Let’s look at some who made the leap and prove that being a backup is just as hard as playing the lead.
Cher is a name you should know already. One of the few artists known simply by her first name, Cher began as a no-name singer looking for a job.
After leaving her mother’s house when she was 16, Cher needed a job. She started out dancing in clubs along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles to meet people in the entertainment industry. 1962 was the perfect time to come up in the music business in LA.
Cher happened to meet Sonny Bono around this same time. Bono worked for renowned producer Phil Spector and introduced the two. Spector used Cher on famous tunes by the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers.
This was the extent of Cher’s backup vocal experiment. Spector produced her first single, but record companies rejected it because of her low, contralto voice. Bono and Cher were living together at this point, and in 1964 they were married.
After another false start under the moniker Cherilyn, Bono and Cher recorded their first duet. Their cover of Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want to Do peaked at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.
On the strength of their duo work, Sonny & Cher became the focus of both their careers. For nearly ten years, the two were inseparable and saw success on the airwaves and the screen.
When they divorced in 1974, Cher declined in popularity, and Sonny went into politics. But Cher wasn’t done. Over the last 40 years, Cher has made numerous comebacks.
Her most recent work with MAC Cosmetics put her on stage with the rapper Saweetie. The chameleon keeps on keeping on.
#2 Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris is country music royalty. Despite her current status, she began her career as a humble backup singer.
Harris went to college on a drama scholarship but dropped out early to begin singing. Ending her college pursuit to take advantage of the folk music boom in the 1960s paid off for the young songwriter.
After marrying fellow songwriter Tom Slocum, Harris started performing as part of a trio with Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera. The Flying Burrito Brothers saw her perform and connected her with another up-and-coming performer, Graham Parsons. Harris had success touring with Parsons’ band until 1973 when he overdosed in a hotel near Joshua Tree National Park.
Because she was a songwriter, she was able to put together her own band and led The Hot Band until the early 1990s. During that time, her reputation as a guest artist was unparalleled, and she recorded with a whole host of significant musicians.
Harris recorded with Linda Ronstadt, Guy Clark, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and even an album with Dolly Parton and Ronstadt. The record Trio was the biggest success of Harris’ career and spent five weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Country charts.
Harris continues to work with other artists and collaborates regularly. It’s a stretch to call these collaborations backup vocals, more like duos or trios. Her list of collaborators is about as long as her career and includes a who’s who of rock, folk, and country musicians.
#3 Gwen Stefani
Before Gwen Stefani saw significant success with the band she co-founded with her brother; she was a folkie. Inspired by the music her parents listened to, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan, to be specific, she dreamed of singing.
Her older brother Eric introduced her to a style of music called 2 Tone, a mashup of reggae and punk, what we would call ska today. In 1986, Eric formed No Doubt and invited his little sister to jump in on vocals.
In 1991, the band signed to Interscope Records but was not immediately successful. Grunge was king, and ska didn’t fit with its aggressive aesthetic.
While No Doubt recorded and toured locally, Gwen recorded backup vocals for other bands. Sublime, another ska band, released a track with Stefani in 1994 called Saw Red. Shortly after, things took a turn for No Doubt.
With the release of their third album, Tragic Kingdom, the band rocketed to the top. Stefani took a break from college to tour and just never went back. The album sold over 16 million copies and cemented No Doubt at the top of the ska revolution.
Stefani herself was dubbed the “Queen of Confessional Pop” by Rolling Stone magazine in 2000. During this time, she collaborated with Brian Setzer, Moby, and Eve. Each of these collaborations pushed her further into the stratosphere.
After No Doubt, Stefani went on to solo stardom and even made her way back to No Doubt in 2014. Shortly after, she replaced Christina Aguilera on The Voice as a mentor and has appeared on eight seasons of the show.
She also met another of her regular collaborators on The Voice, Blake Shelton. The two married in 2021, and continue to back each other up on stage, making sweet harmony together.
#4 Luther Vandross
Luther Vandross, who sadly passed away in 2002, started his career as a backup singer early. He began appearing with Shades of Jade in the late 1960s at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. After appearing on Sesame Street in 1969, Vandross jumped into mainstream music.
He began singing backup vocals for Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway in 1972. Luther also sang backup for well-known artists such as Chaka Khan, Ben E. King, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, and Carly Simon.
His versatility was his strength. He could sing in any genre, which served him well in his future career. In 1980, Vandross broke through as part of the group Change, and the rest is history. He was signed to Epic Records soon after leaving the group over money disputes.
Luther started recording R&B records under his own name and was an instant success. He also worked with Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, and others as a producer, his next career shift.
Vandross continued to sing backup and produce for luminaries like Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, and Mariah Carey in the 1990s. His final chart-topping duet was with Frank Sinatra on the Duets album, where he sang That Lady is a Tramp with ol’ blue eyes.
Shortly before he died in 2002, he recorded “One Shining Moment” for CBS Sports. Over his career, Luther Vandross sold over 40 million albums and won four Grammy Awards.
He worked with some of the greatest voices of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It’s wild to think all this started from his humble seat as president of the Patti LaBelle fan club in high school.
#5 Michael McDonald
Michael McDonald may not be a household name like the other folks on our list, but he’s just as important. As a young man in St. Louis, Missouri, McDonald played in bands throughout high school.
He was playing with the band Blue when he decided to move to Los Angeles and pursue a career in music. Four years later, in 1974, he took up with Steely Dan as a member of their touring band.
McDonald’s work as a background vocalist took off at this point. He toured with Steely Dan and recorded with them until the album Gaucho in 1980.
At the same time, McDonald joined the Doobie Brothers, as a sub for their regular lead vocalist. His work with the band was so good that they decided to keep him on as a regular member. Michael is heard on top hits like Real Love, Takin’ It to the Streets, and Little Darling (I Need You).
A prolific musician, he also worked with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, and the band Toto. In 1977, he wrote You Belong To Me with Carly Simon, which appeared on her album Boys in the Trees.
McDonald left the Doobie Brothers in 1982 but continued recording and releasing new music. Warner Brothers released his first two albums in the early 1980s.
Michael McDonald also worked with Van Halen on their song I’ll Wait. And he won a Grammy for his duet with singer James Ingram.
Michael McDonald continues to figure in contemporary music. He released music with Donald Fagen and Boz Scaggs as The Dukes of September in 2010.
Most recently, he was featured on Barbara Streisand’s version of What the World Needs Now in 2018. He also recorded vocals on Toad the Wet Sprocket’s track The Best of Me.
From Backup Singer to Stardom
No matter where a singer starts on the road to fame, in this case, the destination is more significant than the journey. Singing five feet from stardom can give some vocalists the drive to make it to center stage on their own.
The artists on our list all made their way to the top from their start as backup singers. Hopefully, they appreciate the limelight as much as we love their music.
Who’s your favorite lead singer from our list? Let us know in the comments!